Shaken or stirred? Dangerous fieldwork in social sciences

A UNSW criminologist and an international relations expert walk into a bar … years later their discussions over drinks turn into a book.

Dr Nicholas Apoifis watched as riot police directed neo-Nazis as they attempted to trap trade unionists and anarchists. They were in the midst of a violent protest against the 2011 austerity measures in Greece.

“The cops were telling neo-Nazis when to attack and from which side of the protest, knowing that the protestors couldn’t escape in the other direction because the cops were on that side,” Dr Apoifis says.

It was sight-seen evidence that police and neo-Nazis were colluding in the brutal crackdown on anti-government dissent in Athens.

Dr Nicholas Apoifis

UNSW’s Dr Nicholas Apoifis managed to escape a protest in Athens because he had planned ahead.

“Tear gas canisters were also shot into the protestors,” Dr Apoifis says. “But with such a low trajectory that they would hit the asphalt and skid into the bodies of civilians.”

Dr Apoifis says he had been taking notes at the time, when “suddenly a highly militarised riot police officer grabs me by the scruff of the neck and threatens me with imprisonment.”

Dr Apoifis claimed to be just a curious tourist, explaining himself out of the very intense situation.

“He didn’t believe me at first,” the UNSW politics and international relations expert says.

But after rifling through his backpack to find a Lonely Planet and maps with tourist sites circled on them, the riot officer eventually let Dr Apoifis go. The academic had thought ahead, arrived well-prepared.

“It would have been a very difficult and hostile situation had he [the riot officer] taken me to jail or done anything further,” Dr Apoifis says.

Dr Apoifis’s story is one of nine raw, even hair-raising experiences detailed by UNSW academics in their recently published book Navigating Fieldwork in the Social Sciences: danger, risk and reward.

The idea for the book arose during casual conversations over drinks between Dr Apoifis and UNSW criminology expert Dr Phillip Wadds about their field research experiences.

The academics realised there was a lack of training and advice to prepare researchers for doing fieldwork in the often dynamic, challenging and dangerous environments they encounter.

For the book, Dr Apoifis and Dr Wadds teamed up with colleagues, Dr Susanne Schmeidl and Dr Kim Spurway, to gather stories from other social scientists about what can happen before, during and after being in the field.

The lessons learned, knowledge and invaluable wisdom shared in this rare behind-the-scenes look into social sciences research, are expected to inform and reach others who engage in risky work.

“It was frightening – very scary – and I got lucky,” Dr Apoifis says of his experience in Athens. “And we don’t want people to get lucky in the field. We want them to be as prepared as possible, so they don’t find themselves in these difficult and testing situations.”

Dr Apoifis documented his fieldwork in Greece in his book Anarchy in Athens: an ethnography of militancy, emotions and violence which examines the politics and dynamics of anti-government activism.

Dr Phillip Wadds: caught off-guard by a standover man in Kings Cross

“I looked like Casper the sh** scared ghost – the blood had just drained from my face. I knew who the person was,” says Dr Phillip Wadds.

It was almost 6am in Sydney’s Kings Cross when a well-known “standover man” walked in on Dr Wadds conducting an interview.

Spread across the table in front of the criminologist and his interview subject, a Kings Cross nightclub security guard, were his handwritten notes and a voice recorder.

“[The standover man] was obviously alarmed when he came in. I am sure he probably thought I was a cop. He said, ‘What the f*** is going on here?’ And I was thinking, ‘How do I [get myself out of this]?'”

Dr Phillip Wadds

UNSW criminologist Dr Phillip Wadds has walked the line between institutional ethics and ‘real world’ situations.

Luckily, Dr Wadds had built up enough trust with the security guard during the preceding months that he began to “vouch” for him, saying the academic was just “there doing some research on the Cross”.

“It was so intense,” Dr Wadds says. The UNSW academic tried to de-escalate the situation by offering to delete the voice recordings and to destroy his notes.

“But in that moment, my contact was also saying, ‘Oh, don’t worry, he knows this person, he knows that person’. And, of course, I did know those people, but that was then implicating all those people who were involved in my research.”

This raised some “very real ethical concerns” about exposing his contacts to a standover man, Dr Wadds says. But he did not think about it until afterwards because of the rush of adrenaline at the time.

“If he [the security guard] hadn’t vouched for me … well, who knows what would have happened, these are very violent men. So, it was genuinely scary,” Dr Wadds says.

In hindsight, Dr Wadds says his mistake was in agreeing to meet the security guard alone.

But he decided against his better judgment in that moment because it had taken him months to strengthen his relationship with the security guard to get him to talk about the Kings Cross nightlife.

Dr Wadds says this is just one example of how institutional ethics can often conflict with the real world of field research.

“I was told by my university ethics committee that I had to do all these interviews in public spaces,” he says. “But I couldn’t sit in the street or in a cafe and interview this guy and he couldn’t be seen to be talking to someone in public with a voice recorder.”

Dr Wadds’ 10-year research into the city’s nightlife culminated in various articles and a recent book titled Policing Nightlife: Security, transgression and Urban Order.

Dr Apoifis and Dr Wadds emphasise the importance of doing fieldwork to amplify the voices of marginalised people as the social sciences are often silenced or sidelined by governments, institutions, and some NGOs.

“We fundamentally do need to hear from different voices that have been deliberately marginalised and excluded from political, social, cultural and economic discourse and conversation,” Dr Apoifis says.

“Because quantitative measures [that involve collecting and analysing data and statistics] don’t capture the nuances of the human experience,” Dr Wadds says.

/Public Release. The material in this public release comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.